Norwalk activist fears future storm surge would flood sewage treatment plant

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Ducks pass a Norwalk Sewage Treatment Plant outfall pipe recently at high tide.

NORWALK, Conn. – Smelly sewage is just one of the reasons some Norwalk residents and other concerned citizen have prompted the state to have a public hearing Monday night, to the consternation of Norwalk Department of Public Works Director Hal Alvord, who said it is costing the city untold dollars.

A concern for transparency, civility and emergency management are some of the issues raised by people who signed a petition circulated by environmental activist Diane Lauricella requesting the Connecticut Department of Energy and Environmental Protection (DEEP) to hold the hearing on the city’s renewal of its sewage treatment plant water discharge permit tonight on South Smith Street.

A little more than a year ago, Superstorm Sandy’s storm surge came within inches of flooding the dike at the plant, Lauricella said.

“I am quite concerned about how our plant may or may not survive a storm surge. We were very lucky that it didn’t rain more, (that) it wasn’t high tide, that the winds were such that it didn’t push even more of the water up,” she said. “We were just lucky and luck isn’t going to do it for us in Norwalk because there may be a day when we’re unlucky.”

Norwalk has never had to go through a hearing process to renew its permit, Alvord said.

“It has already cost the city,” Alvord said. “It’s not just one public hearing. We started a couple of months ago. We had to go to status conferences in Hartford. We had to provide documents. We had discovery. There’s been other pre-meeting depositions, sworn testimony, so then you’ve got this public hearing on the second, and then you’ve got another public hearing in Hartford following that. I’ve had staff that has had to spend time putting together documents, traveling to Hartford and back, and we had to pay an outside counsel to do research. We had to get letters of support from the Harbor Management Commission, the Shellfish Commission, the Water Quality Commission – for an award-winning treatment plant.”

Lauricella said she urged the state to hold a public information session. Talking to the council’s Public Works Committee might have been an option, she said, but she and others felt that was out of the question, given the attitudes expressed by committee Chairman David McCarthy (R-District E) and others, she said.

“We do not feel at the time and our history with the Public Works Committee, Mr. McCarthy as chair, the mayor (Moccia), and Mr. Alvord, that we would even be allowed to speak freely and at will without fear of retribution,” she said. “We felt that we would not have a fair and transparent process. We decided that this was the only mechanism where we could be assured that we could submit our concerns without being cut short. … We can’t speak on and on, but we have to have the ability to be heard and it will be recorded.”

Lauricella said there is also a problem with process – none of the city’s governmental boards that are concerned with water quality were consulted about the application to renew the permit, she said.

Alvord said the facility is state of the art, “the best process we’ve ever had,” with some new equipment.

“Is this a colossal waste of time for a plant that operates extremely well? In my view, yes it is,” he said. “I can’t say anything else because I would be lying to you if I did. But there is a protocol at the state that provides if somebody wants to demand a public hearing so they can get up and speak. They have the right to do it. That’s what she did and I just don’t think anybody who signed the petition understood what it was costing them or costing the city.”

Shellfish Commission Chairman Pete Johnson is one of the 36 people who signed the petition. He said the city has not done anything about the smells coming from the plant on occasion.

“It wouldn’t be expensive because there wouldn’t be a hearing if they did what they’ve supposed to do. If they had their fans running like they’re supposed to, negative pressure in the place, have their filters working and their fans working, we wouldn’t get any odor,” he said.

Calls to the city do no good and denials from Alvord that there is a smell are a “flim-flam,” he said.

The city is permitted to chlorinate sewage and release it when the system is overloaded, bypassing standard procedures. That shouldn’t need to happen, he said.

“They’re saying our street drains and our sewer systems aren’t tied in, but when it rains they gotta go on the bypass,” he said.

The Shellfish Commission was never notified that the permit was going to be renewed, he said, and he refuted Alvord’s assertion there was a “letter  of support” sent by the Shellfish Commission.

“He never got a letter from us. I’m the chair of the Shellfish Commission,” he said. “I’ll tell you the truth. I live in East Norwalk. I’ve complained to the mayor (Moccia), years ago. It was like deaf ears. Whatever Hal Alvord said was what it was. That’s why I just didn’t complain because it wasn’t doing any good.”

Harbor Commission member Tony D’Andrea also signed the petition. D’Andrea, formerly the commission chairman, said he signed it because he believes in transparency and civility in government. Sewage treatment is an important issue on a national scale, but Norwalk and Operations Management International (OMI), the operator of the privatized treatment plant, are living up to the conditions of their contract, the standards that are in place, he said. He never hears anything from the Department of Health about unhealthy water, he said.

“They’re exceeding the requirements of their permit,” he said. “There are not too many layers of our government that are exceeding our expectations.”

But you never know, some brilliant mind might show up at a public hearing and offer better ideas, he said.

Ron Makszin, an East Norwalk resident who signed the petition, said he did it because there are smells.

“It’s like every other day, sometimes a couple of weeks at a time,” he said. “More so in the summer time.”

One Richards Avenue woman didn’t know anything about the issue – she signed it because a friend thought it was a good idea, she said. A Hamden man said he signed it because he is concerned about the environment and wants to encourage government oversight.

Louis Burch said he is program coordinator for Citizens Campaign for the Environment.

“Many parts of the state are still served by severely outdated sewage infrastructure,” he said. “Norwalk has taken steps in recent years to improve, particularly in the area of storm water infrastructure. Norwalk is definitely a model that we would really like to see other municipalities follow. One thing that is critical is that we do not allow the fact that we have made improvements in some areas in recent memory to prevent us from keeping up on basic maintenance that needs to happen as well as keeping up with the current technology, the best available technology.”

The petition was straight forward, with a “Let’s gets everyone on the record” approach, he said.

“That kind of thing is important when it comes to city agencies or state agencies, state officials who are working on these kind of issues, that they, too, look at public testimony and things like that,” he said.

Norwalk’s plant may have come close to flooding during Sandy, but it did much better than other plants in the area. While 50 gallons of sewage escaped from the main plant and 900 gallons from the Westport Avenue pump station, Bridgeport sent 19.5 million gallons of partially treated sewage out to Long Island Sound and Stamford released 1.46 million gallons, according to Climate Central, an independent organization of scientists and journalists.

“We have a concern about emergency management, about the ability of that dike to hold, because of the pressures when you have a storm surge,” Lauricella said. “… We’re concerned about the backup energy generation intended to run the pumps and we’ll be discussing that. We are concerned about the integrity of the dike – I have photos to prove it.”

Those photos will be presented at the hearing, she said. The hearing is at 6 p.m. at the DPW Center’s first floor cafeteria, located at 15 South Smith St., near Fort Point Street. Look for directional signage marked “Water Quality Permit Hearing.”

Lauricella said she is not trying to deny Norwalk its permit.

“We want, of course, this plant to have a renewal of their permit, but we would like to add conditions and seek answers to our concerns,” she said.

The hearing will be continued at 9:30 a.m. Wednesday in Hartford. Written comments can be submitted at either hearing or by email to [email protected] or faxed to 860-424-4052. You must put the application number – 20101482 – on your correspondence.

Alvord did not give a dollar figure on the city’s expenses because of the hearings.

“We’re not counting every hour and every minute so it would be hard to substantiate that,” he said.

Lauricella said she would have preferred an informational session in the City Hall community room, but state officials would not allow it.

“It is not me who is causing the expense,” she said. “It is the city of Norwalk, the DEEP who refused to allow us, the citizens, a compromise and negotiate for a reasonable condition.”


35 responses to “Norwalk activist fears future storm surge would flood sewage treatment plant”

  1. Casey Smith

    Inquring minds want to know, how long has the sewage plant been located at that spot, how many times has it been flooded and when?

  2. Suzanne

    Poor Mr. Alvord. It sounds like he is having to do his job.

  3. DEEP_endant

    19 million gallons in Bridgeport? Seems Diane should wade her way up there and leave the job here to the professionals.
    Next time I hit a pothole or see some trash lying around, I’ll be sure to thank Diane for making sure our resources are spent managing a 50 gallon spill from a 500 year storm.
    A real friend here would seek institutional help.

  4. M Allen

    Can’t believe we’re still so upset about transparency and civility. I thought that got fixed?
    And could someone please provide some examples of the retribution that has occurred in the past? Seriously, if there is “fear of retribution” then there should be some examples of it from the past. Like when the third directorate of Norwalk’s secret police were used to… I don’t know. Just some examples would be nice.

  5. Lisa Burns

    The plant is managed by the Water Pollution Control Authority (WPCA) Board of Directors which meets the third Monday of every month at 5:30 PM (the chairman is Darren Oustafine). The City’s Public Works Committee would not be the correct authority to meet on treatment plant issues. In the past year, only one member of the public has attended meetings about a pump station design. The Board invites anyone with concerns to attend any regular meeting or call the WPCA management staff with questions. WPCA has an on-going dialogue with harbor management, Earthplace, aquaculture, health department, shell fishing industry, etc. Ms. Lauricella has never directly reached out to contact the WPCA Board or WPCA staff with any questions – just with a petition about the permit and through the press. WPCA suggests that this many not be the most effective way to discuss her concerns.

    Please visit the WPCA’s website (www.wpcanorwalk.org) for information on tours, plant performance, board members, RFPs, upcoming projects, agendas/minutes, process control, etc. along with customer service information/phone number for reporting odor complaints.

    We highly encourage tours – we want more people to get familiar with the impressive plant. Westport’s Staples High School and NCC tour annually as part of their environmental curriculum. The best way to understand Norwalk’s highly-technological wastewater facility running a biological treatment process would be to take a tour. This would help those concerned understand the operations so that they can make factual suggestions/comments that could be discussed in an intelligent and meaningful manner.

    Unfortunately, the nature of the wastewater business will have some odors and while the WPCA strives for best management practices, at times odors are unavoidable. The WPCA is highly sensitive to the public’s concerns. We provided Ms. Lauricella with the following information extracted from the City’s customer service database last week (not reported in the story above):

    2010 – 3 odor complaints for plant
    2011 – 0 odor complaints for plant
    2012 – 0 odor complaints for plant
    2013 – 0 odor complaints for plant

    While this public hearing on the NPDES permit may not be the appropriate vehicle to provide information on the concerns in the above article (as the concerns are not part of the operating permit and cannot be added under existing statutes or regulations), we look forward to meeting with anyone who wants to know more information about the plant tonight (as we would at anytime).

    Casey Smith: At least 1929 – I know of no recorded flooding events. WPCA built the last $38MM upgrade in 2011 at elevation 12.5 feet (1.5 feet above FEMA requirements at the time). The plant also has a brand-new 2.5 mega watt generator for backup power.

  6. ShibaMom

    This city if very fortunate to have a man like Hal Alvord in charge of DPW. In all of my experiences with him, and his staff, I have never witnessed him behave in an unprofessional manner. Instead, like many service providers, he has often been unfairly citiicized by some who believe they are somehow the expert. I think it’s time for people to look for ways to help this city and its hard working staff instead of banging the drum of negativity.

  7. John Frank sr

    Alvord has his knickers in a knot because the law provides for a public hearing before a new permit for the sewer plant is issued and he claims the hearing process is costing the City a thousands, and then says “it would be hard to substantiate that”. Does that sound like the statements of an honest man ?
    Every time it rains, the system spills untreated sewage, mostly from pump stations that fail, sometimes from the plant when they release what they say is partially treated, but it is an unpleasant color as it comes out. There is no question improvements have been made, but there is still a long way to go. They know how to control the odor generated by the plant but don’t, most of the time, probably because there is a cost. Alvord will say they don’t get odor complaints. People have given up making complaints because it doesn’t do much good.
    Retribution is a harsh word but fits. When I was chair of the shellfish commission and took an active part in review of remediation plans for the former barrel cleaning site at 23 Platt St, I was not re-appointed, after 23 years, to the Shellfish Commission. I think Moccia wanted somebody he had more control over. They say for the press they are going to fix the pump stations so they won’t spill but they don’t want to commit to that in the permit renewal process. They don’t want to commit to keeping the sewer plant from flooding out and dumping poorly treated sewage during heavy rains.
    Objective testing demonstrates that the discharge from the sewer plant is generally pretty clean in nice weather, not so nice when it rains. Progress has been made, but the shellfish beds in the harbor still get closed after every heavy rain.

  8. Lisa Burns

    John Frank Sr.: Please e-mail me at lburnsATnorwalkct.org so we can review your concerns above. I believe you have incorrect information from your statements and would appreciate an opportunity to take you on a tour and show you all plant performance data as well as discuss how the entire watershed impacts shell fishing and water quality. Look forward to meeting with you! Lisa

  9. Suzanne

    Lisa Burns, A little late, aren’t you? This would not be an issue at all if there were regular reports released to the constituency who are expressing such grave concerns. You may have all of the data and it may be fine to insist that residents attend yet another endless meeting in order to find out what is going on but, really, couldn’t the plant and your organization just have released regular testing and release reports to allay concerns? Only now, when it has become a matter of public and well-publicized concern, have you given any thought to informing the taxpayer. That you are being criticized now, no matter how inaccurately, shows that the there is an involved constituency in Norwalk that, if not informed, will become so in whatever channels they are allowed. To say they are just “wrong” does not, in actual fact, mean YOU have met with THEM as a public utility to inform them and listen. Right or wrong, I am glad these people are making the effort. Otherwise, what would we know about you and your organization at all lest we miss that Monday meeting once per month? Be forthright about your operations, be receptive to complaints and maybe you won’t have to be so defensive now.

  10. Lisa Burns

    Diane: If you would like to arrive at the meeting a bit early, I’ll go over the hydraulic profile of the treatment plant with you so that you can understand the purpose of the revetment (you call ‘dike’)around it as it relates to flood control. (It doesn’t operate in the manner that you assume in the article above.) Regards, Lisa

  11. Ark

    Diane L. and John Frank have tied the city up in more garbage then any release from the plant ever could. So John Frank thinks he had a right to stay on Shellfish Commission forever 23 years even when it was his agenda not the City’s. I thought we wanted these old boys out?
    Diane and John this earbuds for you:

  12. Don’t Panic

    Please come and ask that excellent question at the hearing tonight.

  13. EveT

    What solutions are Ms. Lauricella et al. recommending? From reading all of this, I cannot tell what the problem is, other than “lack of transparency” and risk of flooding in a storm surge. While I agree that taxpayers should know how their tax dollars are being spent, I find it baffling that no concrete solutions seem to be mentioned.

  14. John Frank sr

    I used my name with my comments. as did Diane Lauricella and Lisa Burns and several others. I have no idea who uses the name ARK, but I never tied the city up in anything, except when I asked for a performance bond from CL&P to back up their promise to fix the damage they were going to do when they ripped out seven old buried cables and buried three new ones that run from Manresa to Long Island. They never did fix the damage and the last administration never called the bond, as far as I know. I spoke up for the Shellfish commission whenever there was a threat to the Shellfish Beds. That is the responsibility of the commission. Generally, we were supported well by the City, especially OMI,the company that operates the sewage system and the health dept and the DPW. Whenever there was a spill, OMI responded very quickly, helped identify the source, and got the spill stopped as soon as possible. I believe ARK did not use his real name because he, or she, knew very well he, or she, was not telling the truth.

  15. Don’t Panic

    Lisa Burns
    Perhaps you can answer why Mr. Alvord never referred anyone to your agency over the years if this is not under his purview. Suzanne is right. It would have been nice to know you existed before going through the process of requesting a public meeting.
    Can you also let us know why we have not sought permit renewal on schedule?

  16. jlightfield

    @Suzanne, as Lisa Bruns has stated the public records for the WPCA have been available and published to the public for years on the http://www.wpcanorwalk.org. I have lived for many years across the water from the plant for many years, reported odor complaints when I noticed them and received a response following each incident.
    Where I would like to see some change is regarding the release of all customer service calls to the public. Unfortunately the current policy is to only record issues as case incidents if they require further action. The data gleaned by calls and incidents regardless of action, however, is the public perception of what is happening and thus holds value to identify what issues are bubbling up regardless of causation or fixability.
    It’s the whole point of web sites like See Click Fix, and enables municipalities to target areas where incidents that may be disparate server to indicate quality of life issues that can be looked at holistically.

  17. Lisa Burns

    I encourage anyone with specific questions to contact me via e-mail at lburnsATnorwalkct.org or call (information on the WPCA website), come to the meeting tonight or any WPCA meeting, take a tour, or visit the WPCA website where regular reports of water quality performance, governance, etc. are posted. Thanks!

  18. John Frank sr

    Terry Backer, representing the Connecticut Coastal Fisherman’s Association, took the City to court years ago for all the sewer plant permit violations (spills of untreated material) at that time (1987) and won a lot of money in a voluntary settlement the City paid rather than go to court. At that time, the plant was manned by people who were not certified and really didn’t know their jobs. A lot has changed since then and the plant has been upgraded several times and is now run by an outside contractor, OMI. OMI’s record is a big improvement over past operation, but far from perfect. There are concerned people in town who want to see further improvement, including best management practice in odor control. OMI runs the plant at night, when the flow is usually lower, with one person, to save money. A quick tour of the facility would make anyone wonder how it is possible to effectively and safely monitor all the operation there with one person.

  19. Oldtimer

    I would love to hear the excuses for why a permit that expired in 2010 is just being reviewed for renewal now.

  20. Ryan

    Good Grief. More drama. I’m sorry folks sometimes sewage (like garbage) smells.WPCA has done a terrific job.

  21. Suzanne

    jlightfield: Apparently your odor complaints did not merit registering. See Lisa Burns’ comments above that lists virtually no odor complaints for the last several years. Nice of them to have a WEB site but it does absolutely no good for anyone if they do not know it exists. Only when the citizens’ complaints registered via publication was this fact just released to all of us. Why?

  22. Lisa Burns

    #1 result when Googling ‘Norwalk WPCA’. Established in 2009, links from city website and to social media, on letterhead, etc. @Suzanne: Please list where else the website should be accessed from and we will be sure to get it listed/linked there! Thank you!

  23. M Allen

    Lisa – If someone calls the city’s customer service number, are complaints taken by them, directed to the DPW or somehow tracked by the WPCA? It would seem there have been many, many complaints by some and those aren’t making their way in your direction.
    Most normal people probably wouldn’t know about the WPCA, because that would take A) caring and B) looking. But I imagine that some of the activists here probably know about it. Yet oddly, there doesn’t seem to be much mention of it by them. Have they been barking up the wrong tree all this time?

  24. Don’t Panic

    Same question twice. No answer.
    While I appreciate Ms Burns enthusiasm about self-serve government, it is clear that the perception has been that this was under the public works division. I think that was reinforced during Sandy when the only outward notice of the possible flood and shutdown came from Mr. Alvord (not WCPA) via a “too little, too late” posting on The Hour’s Web site (after most Norwalkers lost power and internet access) with the most helpful advice to stop flushing and use toilet liners.
    Will someone answer the question about why the permit wan’t renewed on schedule in 2010 at the hearing tonight?

  25. Don’t Panic

    @Lisa Burns,
    That is the trouble with not thinking like your customers. If you google wastewater treatment plant Norwalk, it is the fifth listing (after the paid listings, it is about 14th). But someone who didn’t already know that they were looking for WCPA would likely use a more generic search term.
    Here is another one: try searching wastewater treatment plant on the city’s website using the search box and see why it’s so important that customer service and the public works Dept do the referals.
    It is SO much easier to find something when you already know what you are looking for (and where it is). If you want people to know where to go, you have to go where they are likely to look if they DON’T already know the answer.

  26. Oldtimer

    Why has there been so many trips to Hartford, as Alvord claims. Don’t they keep records in Norwalk ?

  27. jlightfield

    Just for the record, all of the search engines are personalizing search results, so everyone’s search results will vary.

    @Suzanne, I think I addressed the lack of call tracking versus registered actions. I agree that a change in policy is needed but that’s a City wide policy change, and something I think many on the Council have supported in spirit but not in funding because of course who brings forth agenda actions on behalf of the government overall instead of department by department.

  28. Casey Smith

    Thank you, Lisa Burns, for your information. I do appreciate it.
    @ Don’t Panic – I’d love to come to the hearing but have other obligations. But please feel free to ask the question at the meeting for me.
    Just for reference, if the plant was built in 1929, that would mean it survived the 1938 Hurricane, which according to Wikipedia, was the second costly hurricane in Connecticut’s 350 years. Hurricane Sandy apparently elbowed her way to #1.
    It also means that the plant survived the Flood of ’55, also. God alone knows in what condition the plant was in afterwards, but it did survive.
    People continually talk about best practices and transparency. But what is considered to be a “best practice” may not turn out to be as beneficial as originally believed.
    (Total sidebar – an article about the effectiveness of LEEDS buildings turned up today … http://www.washingtontimes.com/news/2013/nov/28/williams-new-green-building-standards-have-taxpaye/)
    As best I can tell, “best practices” seems to be a moving target, and a rather quick one at that. Someone we knew worked for a company that manufactured measuring devices for environmental testing. One day they had devices that could measure parts per million. Two months later, parts per billion, then later on, parts per trillion…etc. And with the release of each new scale was accompanied by hysteria. And I wonder how we managed to survive before we discovered 2 parts of whatever per billion in our water. So, I kind of take the long view on this.
    I hope ya’ll have fun at the hearing. I’ll be thinking of you!

  29. New info: Everyone can speak tonight but maybe limited to 5 minutes, written comments will be accepted until this Friday, Dec. 6th

    Rules for participation may be found here:

  30. M Allen

    I suppose if people were really looking for the Authority, rather than Googling some keywords they could just go to the city’s website. It’s pretty intuitive: Mouse over City Departments > Public Works then click on Sanitary Sewers, which leads directly to http://www.wpcanorwalk.org/

  31. John Frank sr

    City Website, WPCA minutes, list the following
    Staff: Hal Alvord, DPW Director
    Lisa Burns, DPW Operations Manager
    Ralph Kolb, DPW Waste Systems Manager
    Apparently these three DPW employees are staff for the WPCA. Most city commissions have some city employee listed as staff, three is a little unusual, but that explains why Alvord does all the talking for the sewer plant.

  32. RU4REAL

    Do you live in Norwalk Ms. Burns?

  33. M Allen

    Well, just for those people who like to see backgrounds and all that fine stuff http://www.wpcanorwalk.org/wpca-governance/wpca-staff/

  34. Don’t Panic

    If public works runs customer service and they are registering complaints from residents and there are DPW staff on the WPCA then it makes no sense for there to be a lack of complaint data available.

  35. Suzanne

    Thank you, Don’t Panic, and very good point. The complaint data above just cannot be accurate given concerns expressed just on this thread. Clearly, someone is missing the mark on citizen concern and odors emanating from the sewage treatment plant.

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